Seriously, No Joke
Have you ever noticed how pointless it is to ask someone, “What’s your religion?” The answer is likely to be a proper noun, such as Baptist or Hindu. But what does that designation mean to the person answering the question? Does such an answer really tell us anything? Beyond, perhaps, an origin for someone’s recent gene pool or perhaps about some idiosyncratic choices?
Separating out religion from everything else we do—all the other meaning-making systems we use—is only a convenience. As anthropologist Jonathan Z. Smith put it,
Religion is solely the creation of the scholar’s study. It is created for the scholar’s analytic purposes by his imaginative acts of comparison and generalization. Religion has no existence apart from the academy. (Imagining Religion)
Allowing for humor and rhetorical overstatement, Professor Smith’s point is that we exist in a matrix of symbolic systems that we separate out only for the sake of contemplation (and, perhaps, clarification).
In our minds—and in our lives—the meanings are all mashed up, a puree or whip of meaning and purpose . . . Is it about morals? ethics? politics? personal integrity?
It’s always about all of the above. And the below. And the between.
Human beings are meaning-making creatures. We manage to make the meanings we make in systems of narrative and symbol, some of which we understand, most of which most of us don’t.
In these systems, it’s us or them: we control them, or they control us.
Whenever we aren’t paying attention, it is the latter.
Mushy, Mashy, Meaning
Given this mushy, mashy matrix in which we create the meaning in our lives, removing what is conventionally called “religious” (or “spiritual”) from a personal or collective meaning-making system does not leave a hole or gap, but is rather an opening that other symbolic systems will fill by other means. Or, more probably, the same means by different names.
Within the Western tradition “god” still packs a meaningful punch to many people, especially North Americans. Yet, if the god concept does not guarantee or underwrite meaning and purpose for you or me, something else will . . . perhaps even the insistence that life has meaning and purpose without the god concept!
Think for a moment about how many people you know who actually take meaning and purpose from their concept of god. Does it change their way of being in the world? My suspicion is that the concept usually functions as shorthand for something else in most human lives.
Theologian Gordon D. Kaufman puts it this way:
The central question for theology is not . . . primarily a speculative question, a problem of knowledge at all. Most fundamentally it is a practical question: How are we to live? To what should we devote ourselves? To what cause give ourselves? Put in religious terms: How can we truly serve God? What is proper worship?
(Face of Mystery: Constructive Theology)
Put succinctly: “What’s your cause?”
Your cause may be survival. Or approval. Family. World peace. Lots of things.
Often the god concept becomes the straw man who underwrites preexisting wishes and prejudices.
The symbolic systems we live in are difficult to see and even more difficult to separate into understandable strands. Most difficult of all is putting all the strands back into a conceivable whole. Yet, finally, there is no religion, no politics, no self. Only the forest of symbols and stories we wander in.
As Jean-Paul Sartre once said, “Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you.”
Freedom is also figuring out why we do what we do.